Recently I spent part of a week in the company of a multidisciplinary group of academics and researchers from Europe, the US, and Africa, at a workshop entitled “The Practice and Politics of DIY Urbanism in Africa.” Jonathan Makuwira, a professor from the Malawi University of Technology, delivered a compelling paper on “Disability and Urbanism in Malawi,” highlighting the many challenges of the continent’s disabled population, using that city as a case study.
The lecture reaffirmed my sentiments on the gross inadequacies of urban public spaces for the disabled. It’s an issue that formed the basis for my 2016 entry for the Richard Rogers Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), where I had proposed to use the fellowship to develop a prescriptive accessible design blueprint for public spaces in the city of Abuja.
Considering the events that also took place that same week, Makuwira’s talk couldn’t have been more timely. The workshop curator, Steve Marr, a political science PhD and senior lecturer at the University of Malmo in Sweden, often needed a wheelchair to get around, and our time together offered me an opportunity to view the city through his eyes. As expected, he had a hard time negotiating most public spaces we went to, and couldn’t get into others because of poor wheelchair accessibility or faulty lifts.
After one of the roundtable sessions at the Norwegian Embassy, we set out for the short walk to the residence of the Swedish Ambassador for a final soiree. The street was fraught with obstacles and Steve had to disembark from his wheelchair on several occasions for it to be lifted over the barricades, a heart-wrenching sight for everyone present. Although Steve made light of the situation, the ignominy wasn’t lost on me, a designer practicing in Abuja who has long acknowledged the urgent need for better access for the disabled.
These efforts were even more poignant in light of an incident that happened a few days earlier, when the Nigerian Twitterscape exploded with images from the House of Representatives in Abuja, showing a paraplegic man, entering the legislative chambers and forced to crawl on all fours to descend numerous flights of stairs as lawmakers watched indifferently.
PHOTONEWS: Nigeria's @HouseNGR @nassnigeria is not handicap accessible despite billions budget annually for lawmakers @bukolasaraki @YakubDogara
A humiliating experience of a handicapped Nigerian invited to the @HouseNGR by @femigbaja pic.twitter.com/T5Sn1zkPrD
— Sahara Reporters (@SaharaReporters) December 5, 2017
Ironically, all of these events played out a few days after World Disability Day, which was marked with the customary workshops, seminars, and rallies organized by the advocacy groups on the continent. Even newspaper columnists took a break from politics to mutter an obligatory word or two about the rights of the disabled.
All over the world, cities are developing accessible design standards to better accommodate the disabled in the use of public spaces. And yet most cities in Africa, like Abuja, haven’t followed their lead. Most counties here have failed to translate any of the platitudes and rhetoric around disability issues into real brick and mortar. The design and layout of most public buildings in Africa conveys our collective contempt for people living with disabilities. The streets of my current city, Abuja, are a death trap for the disabled, and conditions for them are even worse in other cities across the continent. Concrete barricades, exposed manholes, and other physical barriers make daily commutes an arduous endeavor for even the able-bodied; let alone people with disabilities.
Most architects and designers here do not appreciate the importance of accessible design because it’s rarely taught at design school, or even emphasized in professional practice. For most designers, accessible design starts and ends with the occasional wheelchair ramp (often an afterthought). Public car parks typically don’t have dedicated spaces for the disabled and, even when they do, no one enforces them. Architects and designers rarely take into consideration the anthropometric proportions of the physically-challenged. As a result, we often end up with spaces that have no clear floor space for wheelchair or walking stick maneuvering. Most public bathrooms aren’t configured to accommodate the physically challenged, who often have to make the most of conventional layouts. These aren’t the only indignities. At present, a large percentage of ATMs in our cities are inaccessible to the disabled; this forces them to rely on second parties to carry out their transactions, which exposes them to theft and fraud.
Disabled Africans often live in a state of quiet resentment, and for good reason. There’s a history of paternalistic care forced on them. Most families with disabled members insist on assigning chaperones to them, so they tend to live their entire lives with other people pushing their wheelchairs (or leading them by the hand, if blind). Sadly, the indignities often run deeper: some poor and unscrupulous families, under the guise of minding their disabled family members, use them as a hedge for begging. Creating public spaces that are fully accessible would go a long way towards breaking this culture of imposed dependency.
Most African countries don’t yet have their own local accessibility standards, but whether they realize it or not, they do have an effective tool at their disposal: the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has become the global model for best practices. African architects and designers should use it, rather than wait for local laws to be enacted in their individual countries. At the same time, it’s long past time for policymakers on the continent to rewrite our building codes to ensure that new construction abides by accessible design best practices and that existing buildings be retrofitted to reasonably accommodate the disabled. Providing equal access to the built environment, after all, is more than just the right thing to do. It’s a fundamental human right.
Mathias Agbo, Jr. is a design researcher and built environment designer. He runs a small design-build consultancy in Abuja, Nigeria and periodically writes on design and architecture. Find him on Twitter @Mathias_AgboJr.